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Study links fracking chemicals to impaired immune system

University of Rochester researchers say a new study offers some clues about the potential affects of groundwater contaminated by hydraulic fracturing chemicals on the immune system.

In the study published in Toxicological Sciences, researchers exposed pregnant mice to 23 of the hundreds of chemicals that are used to extract oil and gas from deep underground. The mice drank water laced with chemicals at levels similar to those found in groundwater near fracking sites.

Paige Lawrence, Ph.D, chair of environmental medicine at URMC and the leader of the study, said the offspring of the mice that were exposed to the tainted drinking water had abnormal immune responses to several types of diseases later on, including a disease that mimics multiple sclerosis.               

"We don't yet know if (there are) effects of exposure to these chemicals on the human immune system. But our study highlights that I think we need to think long term about how the environment may affect health,” she said. “For immune changes, maybe we need to look in a delayed way. In other words, the effects might not be seen immediately, but they're going be seen after a delay."

Scientists at the University of Missouri School of Medicine who partnered in the study linked 23 fracking chemicals to reproductive and developmental defects in mice. Susan Nagle, Ph.D, associate professor of reproductive and perinatal research, classified the chemicals as endocrine disrupters, which can interfere with hormones. Some commonly known fracking chemicals include benzene, styrene, and xylenes.

Previous studies have reported higher rates of diseases such as acute lymphocytic leukemia and asthma attacks among residents who live near hydraulic fracturing sites. Lawrence said further research should examine the types of immune cells affected by the chemical exposure.

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